Reading Scripture Together

Mike Starkey

Lots of us struggle when it comes to studying the Bible. We know there is something vital, true and life-giving in its pages. We know it contains wisdom for life. But making the time and head-space to access that wisdom can still be a struggle.

I have just finished a stimulating new book which got me thinking about Bible study in a fresh way. Anna Carter Florence is Professor of Preaching at Columbia Seminary. Her new book is Rehearsing Scripture (Canterbury Press). But it is not advice for preachers expounding the Bible. It is about how the rest of us engage with scripture for ourselves. Or, rather, the ways we fail to encounter scripture.

Anna Carter Florence wields a nifty metaphor. She thinks in pictures. This immediately appealed to me – as author of Church Army’s Faith Pictures course! Her book is based around three metaphors, three word-pictures that illustrate the kind of struggle so many of us have when trying to connect with scripture.

The first is the image of a grumpy teenager, peering into a well-stocked fridge, complaining there is nothing to eat. The reality, of course, is that there is plenty to eat. The teenager just doesn’t know what to cook or how to cook it, and expects a parent to do it for them. In the same way, says Florence, we expect professionals to master the contents of scripture and serve it up for us with endless flavour and variety. Our role, meanwhile, is to be waited on and grumble occasionally. In other words, she says, we have professionalised the handling of scripture, relegating the faithful to passive recipients.

Florence’s second word-picture is Maurice Sendak’s popular children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Reading scripture, she says, should be an unpredictable adventure. It should take us where wild things are. An encounter with the Bible should involve us (like Max, the boy in the story) putting on our wolf-suits and shouting, ‘Let the wild rumpus start!’ In other words, we often expect scripture to be dull.

Her third metaphor highlights her proposed remedy, and this is the heart of the book. She describes the work of a neighbourhood repertory theatre. Not only do we currently read scripture passively and tamely, she says, we do it in isolation. Most of us sit and read the Bible by ourselves, trying to listen for the messages of scripture and the voice of God well away from friends and community.

By contrast, she describes a repertory theatre as a small band of actors who grow to know and trust each other. Their task is to wrestle with a text and ask new questions of it, with a view to interpreting and performing the text in the real world. Similarly, she says, a richer way to explore scripture would be to rehearse it together, to be ‘repertory church’. In other words, scripture might begin to come alive in all sorts of fresh ways if our main approach was to read and wrestle with passages together, sparking off each other, sharing insights and connections.

Much of the book comprises Florence’s suggestions for what this rehearsing of scripture might look like. One of her main suggestions is that small groups explore together the verbs in Bible passages. The actions, the ‘doing’ words.

Biblical nouns, she says, can be a little baffling, and they can highlight the cultural distance between us and the world of the Bible (all those cubits, manna and Nephilim). On the other hand, verbs convey a shared humanity. In the verbs we see our own lives. In a wonderfully concise and thought-provoking statement, she describes the Incarnation as God coming to share our verbs.

The result is a stimulating book, which is enlarging the ways I think about studying scripture, and even the ways I think about church.

Now, where did I put that wolf-suit…?

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